KAHULUI >> A Maui megachurch is facing scrutiny for holding Easter Sunday services amid an active COVID-19 cluster in its congregation.
The state Department of Health on Wednesday took the unusual step of naming King’s Cathedral as the source of an “imminent health threat” posed by a large coronavirus cluster numbering more than 50 cases, with the infected ranging in age from 10 to 77.
The church cluster has helped boost Maui’s COVID-19 case count in recent weeks, to the point where it surpassed Oahu’s numbers on several occasions. According to DOH Disease Outbreak Control Division data, Maui island had a seven-day daily average of 19.5 new cases per 100,000 population as of Monday, well above the next highest average of 6.2 for Hawaii island.
Health officials on Wednesday reported one new coronavirus-related death, an Oahu woman in her 80s with underlying health conditions, and 100 new infections statewide, bringing the state’s totals since the start of the pandemic to 463 fatalities and 29,681 cases. The new infections include 42 on Oahu, 30 on Maui, 16 on Hawaii island, one each on Kauai and Lanai, and 10 Hawaii residents diagnosed outside the state.
Acting State Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said the Health Department doesn’t typically identify specific cluster locations but was doing so in the case of King’s Cathedral because of the rapidly spreading size of the outbreak, which had doubled in the past 10 days.
The growing cluster also moved health officials to encourage the church “to cancel all in-person events and conduct only virtual services until the cluster is contained,” according to a DOH news release.
Kemble, appearing on Maui Mayor Michael Victorino’s daily news briefing, said the church-related cases were linked not only to King’s Cathedral’s main location in Kahului but to its annexes in Lahaina and elsewhere.
Health officials are urging anyone who attended events hosted by King’s Cathedral in the past 14 days to get tested for COVID-19 immediately and look for symptoms including fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat or loss of taste or smell. Those experiencing symptoms are being advised to self-quarantine and seek medical consultation.
Despite DOH advice against in-person gatherings, King’s Cathedral is proceeding with plans for three Easter Sunday services, according to its website. However, in light of public health concerns, the church said in a statement Wednesday that it has canceled the popular Easter egg hunts it has sponsored for the past 37 years and postponed its Easter stage production, “Indestructible Life,” until April 25 and 26.
The church said it is aware of 33 active cases “among the thousands” who attend its many activities throughout Maui County. The statement also suggested that some of its members may have contracted the virus at their place of employment or in other settings, especially as the number of tourists on Maui has increased.
“As an essential institution we are thankful that during this challenging time we can continue to be a beacon of faith, hope and love to the people of Maui County and everywhere our church is planted,” the statement said.
King’s Cathedral already has been observing COVID-19 precautions that include required mask wearing, pews spaced 6 feet apart, sanitizing of facilities between services and throughout the week, and hand sanitizer stations.
The church was founded by Pastor James Marocco in 1980, when it was known as First Assembly of God. It now claims 365 congregations across Hawaii and in 15 other states and 16 foreign nations.
During the pandemic, the church has continued to hold virtual and in-person events, including Sunday worship services offered at its Kahului sanctuary, online and via a drive-in option where churchgoers can watch on a large LED screen and listen on outdoor speakers or tune in to an AM radio station.
The church also hosted the Zeal Youth Event, held March 14 to 17, for middle and high school students, which contributed to the growing cluster, according to the Health Department.
The DOH release said the COVID-19 cases associated with King’s Cathedral were identified as a cluster on March 7. Health officials met with church representatives on March 10 “to recommend containment measures including isolation, quarantine and advising a switch to virtual services and other prevention measures,” the release said.
Kemble said in the DOH news release that it appeared the spread had been contained, however, subsequent transmission occurred as a result of ongoing in-person services, the youth conference and other gatherings. Additionally, “spillover” transmission from the church was linked to cases at an unnamed Maui middle school and a workplace.
Both Kemble and Victorino urged the public to avoid stigmatizing King’s Cathedral, noting coronavirus infections have reached far and wide into Hawaii institutions and communities.
“They are trying their best and I’m thankful for that … ,” Victorino said. “Don’t stigmatize. It can happen anywhere. Let’s remember we’re one community.”
Last year in the days leading up to Easter, and as COVID-19 was beginning to take hold in Hawaii and elsewhere, Victorino granted an exemption to county emergency rules so King’s Cathedral could hold drive-in Easter Sunday services. Victorino then rescinded the exemption after health officials detected a cluster of coronavirus infections associated with an unnamed Maui church.
The mayor urged Marocco to cancel in-person services, but then issued a “clarification” allowing King’s Cathedral to continue with plans for an Easter Sunday drive-thru food distribution as a permitted “essential” activity. Since the food giveaway was to take place during worship services, Victorino allowed the services as well.
At the time, Marocco told The Maui News, “The nature of the church is to be together and worship the Lord. The church is called to fellowship. It’s very hard to fellowship when you have social distancing because there are folks who long to be a part of something.”
Also during his daily briefing Wednesday, Victorino announced he is proposing changes to Hawaii’s COVID-19 travel restrictions, including a pilot “vaccination passport” program and mandatory rapid testing at Kahului Airport for arriving passengers, even those who have complied with current Safe Travel Hawaii rules requiring a pre-travel test with negative results within 72 hours of departure.
Even with pre-arrival testing, some passengers might still be contagious, he said, and the idea is to “cut them off at the airport.”
Those who fail to get pre-travel testing from an approved partner or who refuse to submit to the second testing at the Maui airport upon arrival will be subject to a 10-day quarantine, Victorino explained.
Under his proposals, the vaccination passport would be available to travelers who can show proof of having completed the vaccination process, with the final shot administered at least 14 days before departure for Hawaii. Those holding the passports would not be required to undergo testing.
The mayor did not provide further details of the proposals but said that after two weeks of drawing up guidelines, he had presented them to Gov. David Ige for approval and is hoping to have them in place by mid-April.
The programs would apply to both visitors and returning residents, Victorino said.
On Oahu, Maunalani Nursing and Rehabilitation Center reported Wednesday that it had resumed family visitation and admission of new residents after all 230 residents and staff were tested Monday, with all the test results coming back negative.
The tests were administered after a newly admitted resident to the 100-bed skilled nursing facility on Wilhelmina Rise had tested positive for the coronavirus. That resident also returned a negative result in this week’s testing, Maunalani said.
Health officials said Wednesday there were 1,200 active coronavirus cases statewide, an increase of 25 from the previous tally. At last count, Oahu had 687 active cases, Maui had 368, Hawaii island had 132, Molokai had six, Kauai had five and Lanai had two.
Of all the confirmed Hawaii cases, 1,989 have required hospitalization, with 10 new hospitalizations reported Wednesday.
According to the latest information from the department’s Hawaii COVID-19 Data dashboard, a total of 42 patients with the virus were in Hawaii hospitals as of Tuesday morning, with seven in intensive care units and four on ventilators.
Anyone who feels ill, believes they may have been exposed or attended a King’s Cathedral function in the past two weeks may schedule a COVID-19 test by registering at minitmed.com/pre-register-maui-covid-19.